Review of Alain Badiou, William Watkin, A. J. Bartlett, Justin Clemens (trans. and eds.), The Pornographic Age (Bloomsbury, 2020), 126 pages, £38.50
Reviewed by Ekin Erkan
This review of Alain Badiou’s The Pornographic Age—as well of the essays included in the book by William Watkin, A.J. Bartlett and Justin Clemens—illuminates that this is one of the few, if not only, texts where Badiou reverses the operational directionality of the event qua category theory, so as to “dis-image” power. In doing so, Badiou provides a theory of power based on intentionality and relation, rather than the more common Foucauldian genealogic-historical methodologies so often co-opted by contemporary thinkers of biopolitics and power. Using Jean Genet’s play, The Balcony, as a fulcrum with which to strip apart the representative regime vis-à-vis the Platonic gesture, Badiou posits a politically exigent critique of contemporary neoliberal democracy.
Badiou, Plato, event, neoliberalism, power, category theory, pornography
In texts such as Being and Event or Logics, Badiou posits events as occurring outside of ontology, with the logic of worlds made to appear vis-à-vis added multiples or relations. In The Pornographic Age, however, Badiou presents a reversal, or a dis-imaging, by “speaking retroactively about the event as being stripped of its images” (106) and relating this to power. Contra Foucauldian biopolitics or Althusserian interpellation, Badiou theorizes power as that which “does not have an image” (107), with this breach between imagistic and non-imagistic regimes occupying a great deal of the text’s purview. The book begins with Badiou distinguishing the historical practice of both poetry and philosophy as identifying a nostalgic gap between present and past, a gap that “increasing” and “more difficult to identify” today (1). Badiou also denotes that this gap, which separates us from the present, deals with the order of representation. Consequently, Badiou culls Jean Genet’s play The Balcony and its invocations of imagistic disorder, spurred by riots and revolution, which occupy the background noise of the on-stage brothel and its politicized subjects. Badiou likens Genet’s political subjects of protest to those of the Arab Spring and Spain’s Los Indignados, although the reader may now also be reminded of Black Lives Matter.
Badiou recalls Lacan, who once dedicated a lengthy analysis to Genet’s play and for whom the theatre served as a critical resource to examine the transmogrification of the real into representation—desire’s imagistic becoming. Contra tragedy, which identifies truth with the past, comedy, for Lacan, invokes the present, coaxing the phallus into symbolic appearance while opening it critique. Similarly, Badiou seeks to pin down the speculative phallus of our present through the expressive power of comedy by identifying its principle name as that which we term “‘democracy’” (3). Comedy, and the theatre writ large, allows for power and relationships of power to “appear,” such that power becomes an object for critique. The stage as such functions as a real-time diagram: bodies intervene and affect one another, moving through different intervals and set into spatio-temporal relationships. For Badiou, uncovering the juridical hypostasis of democracy, the phallus of the present, necessitates going beyond the democratic fetish as it is known, just as Genet’s play “confronts the reign of images with the real of revolt” (4) by setting its narrative within the brothel. The brothel is, at once, both the model of order and governed by the imaginary of desire. As a locus of fusion, the brothel presents the object of desire as convertible into financial evaluation and transaction. Outside of The Balcony’s brothel is the pure present: a worker’s revolt teems off-stage, desire given force by the non-imagistic real.
Thus the scene is set between the pure event of exteriority (off-stage) and the field of images (on-stage). The latent power of the event is a yet-unrevealed sense of revolt, which is lost once it becomes represented. Badiou asks if, given political desire’s attempt to transform the real into the absoluteness of its object, there can be an absolute desire—for art, politics, science or love (Badiou’s independent four truth conditions)—that is not besmirched by a fantasy? Within each of these conditions, Badiou terms the “event” a creative process of construction, or a “truth-procedure”; “truth” is an exception to given knowledge or representation, in the sense of disrupting the objective distribution of “bodies and languages” through which one discerns coherent parts within a situation or “world”. In The Balcony, the Chief of Police, the naked emblem of operative power (who, according to Lacan, indexes the pure phallus) prowls the brothel as the guarantor of images, culling subjects—protestors and prostitutes, alike—to appear before him. If the Chief wields power by forcing images to transpire before him, then political absolute necessitates the opposite—our being subtracted from given images, the “murder” of our pure present. Badiou provokes us to dis-image. For the power of the present is not subjected to images of this present but what is behind its democratic imagery, its veil: for Badiou, this is the great noumenal Outside, the in-itself which is necessarily beyond the bounds of observation.
In Genet’s play, the Chief of Police infiltrates the brothel and requests the Queen, Envoy and Bishop to literally dress him as a giant phallus—the pornographic structure par excellence, the image “of that which has no image, naked power” (12). Via the Chief of Police, Badiou seeks to hold a candle to our present age, and, following Marx, to illuminate the relation of imagery to the real as what has to be undone by creating an active consciousness of class struggle. Badiou galvanizes this political orientation with four operations for seeing clearly from “the balcony of the present,” including: i) the imaginary cover of the present, a systematic operation; ii) the outlines of what subtracts itself from the image (dis-imaging, dis-imagining), a political operation; iii) the testing of facticity which guards naked power, a disjunctive operation; iv) the fetish-emblem of naked power, a poetic operation. Attempting to find an order which links these four operations, Badiou begins with the last and works forwards. Genet’s plays concludes with the representative regime subsuming the momentary image of revolt—in The Balcony’s final scene Irma, the Queen, returns to her role as the brothel’s Madame. For Badiou, “order” as such is nothing but “capitalism with a human face”—a “decent capitalism” of ecological and political reforms, which always promises “more democracy” (17). Badiou concludes by remarking that today’s “middle class” may occasionally participate in televised non-violent protest but is, ultimately swathed in neoliberalism’s “teleported goods and images” while “the revolution, communism, much like dead stars, gravitate away,” for any true protest is deprived of any affirmative image (19). Badiou motivates a politics beyond representation, a politics of the Outside.
Badiou’s short essay, originally published in French in 2013 and newly translated into English, is followed by A.J Bartlett and Justin Clemens’ analyses. The duo underscore that pornography does not function as a standard static category but is a circumstantial category of designation. Etymologically tracing the original context of “pornography’s” usage and linking it to democracy’s foment, they note that the term accompanied the emergence of mass politics during the 1880s, as countries began producing their own domestic pornography. What, then, is the relation between contemporary neoliberalism, or the total economization of the cult of individual freedoms, and pornography as a dominant cultural genre? Neoliberalism distracts us from structural modes of control by promising variegated freedoms but, when prodded under power-centric analysis, is denuded, such that we see how the individual is structurally repressed. Pornography exacerbates infrastructures of control by inciting the uptake of new technologies and platforms, silently collecting and recording metadata on user preferences while wielding the image as a conceptual apparatus. Pornography thus enforces “an absolute prohibition on the prohibition of images” (24). The pornographic logic demonstrates itself as a guarantor of privatizing communal communication, turning us further into our digital selves; how, then, to invert its image? For Badiou, this means inverting the image as a conceptual category.
Badiou’s Platonism is inherently at ends with the representative image, yet he extols Genet’s theatre; recall how Plato censured the tragedies of his day for transposing the groundless and irrational feelings demonstrated by actors onto audience members, resulting in “habituation effects.” Yet Genet’s theatre, in the last instance, is that of an exterior Outside beyond images, costume and camouflage. By deracinating Theatre (which Badiou deems “non-philosophical”) from the State, Badiou seeks to relay the possibility of thinking of (non)relation so as to bolster philosophy, which finds itself subtracted from images in its transmission of evental knowledge. Badiou’s primary interest here is not in the relation between the theatre of non-images and the position of philosophy but, instead, in how the knowledge of images, “which is the theatre,” can assist us in subtracting ourselves from the regime of images (27-28). Plato disparaged the fictions of drama due to the genre’s seductive and insidious influence, as it entices spectators to identify with the on-stage characters. However, by concerning himself with the political semblance of the theatre and its diagrammatizing power, Badiou’s Platonism is mediated by the distancing-effect of spectatorship as a properly philosophical activity. Understanding the theatre as a nexus of the state, we look upon the stage to analyze and participate in the operations of our present. For Plato, the ideal polis resists imitative experience, as genuine knowledge is poised against the pedagogy of representation—“to make representation or the knowledge of images impossible is the very condition of possibility for the just city” (29). But what of the philosophical theatre of participation rather than spectatorship, analogized by Plato’s cave? The cave serves as a void, an image with no referent—it represents the interests of “democracy” and ideology. The cave is a pornographic topology, or that which is off limits to knowledge (37). The Cave, and by extension the theatre of philosophy, stages that which is without image.
As a Platonist, Badiou commits to an abstract polis of the (Platonic) Idea – transcendent, universal, eternal. Representative democracy reproduces itself interminably as a relation to impossibility, precluding justice and what is real of it from becoming visually manifest such that that which is radically Outside of representation is negatively determined. That is, the promise of democracy is corrupted through representation and democracy-cum-ideology persists as the real of what it represents as impossible to attain by hindering revolt. Contra Plato’s normatively positive account of democracy-sans-representation, Badiou regards democracy as under the duress of authoritarianism. For Badiou, the philosopher must allow the Idea behind democracy to function as other than as it is known (pornographically) and, thus, other than it is represented. Badiou remarks that the “spectator is a figure of chance and as such may become ‘subject,’” hence imbuing the theatre’s spectators with uniquely political prowess in their generic humanity, a humanity that is inimitable because it is subtracted from its differences. Staging the decision to be made, Badiou implores the yet un-thought of theatre, the gap between thought and the decision. Badiou utilizes the stage as a domain onto which non-aesthetic conditions can be mapped. The comedic nature of Genet’s play, as with the Chief of Police, allows for the pornographic nature of democracy and its appendages of power to be denuded. Since the event, more broadly, is identified with the becoming-true of the present sans-image, The Balcony thus coordinates a city in discourse, a polis collectively “demanding its subject” (41).
Just as there are no subjects without events, there is no truth without the collective (re)orientation of possibility. This is why for both Plato and Badiou, mathematics is the condition for staging the Idea and, thus, the grounding for philosophy. Ontologically, the subject is a finite enquiry of an infinite truth procedure, which always follows an event. Mathematics assumes an ontological role, subtracting thinking from the qualitative determinations represented by sensible intuition. Badiou’s tripartite Platonic gesture, of “orientation, situation and trajectory” (50), is knotted together via participation, which formalizes the subject’s political satisfaction and activates the Idea of thought. The “decision” is, thus, conditioned on a historically mediated affirmation rather than an epistemic foundation, characterized as an axiomatic act which interrupts the monotonous oscillation of metaphysical history (with neoliberalist democracy serving as its most contracted point).
In the final essay, “Brothel as Category”, William Watkin underscores the connective tissue of nostalgia qua philosophy’s logic of appearing. Rendering the balcony as a bricolage between the real of revolutionary unrest (scenes outside the brothel/stage) and the order of representation (scenes within the brothel/stage), Watkin diagrammatizes the event within the purview of relational being and appearing. Specifically, Watkin relates pornography to Badiou’s ontologization of category theory by way of meta-structural relations between objects occupying the same world (the stage). For Badiou, category theory serves as a means of drawing out the precondition(s) of representation, differentiating beings “not in terms of what they are, but what they do to each other” (69). If events are not categorical, than The Pornographic Age distinguishes a politics of the event, distinguishing a non-relational politics (of subjects, truths, ethics, and militancy) from a politics of relation (realpolitik). Situated between the world qua brothel and the real of political militancy “out there”, Badiou uses Genet’s play to indicate how that which appears on-stage i.e., power/pornography/democracy, works against that which is determinately negated, i.e., protest/the event. In turn, Badiou illuminates the differential event, the in-between events of non-relation that dialectically take their way into the visible world of forces and actions.
Categories are, arguably, “pornographic” because they lay bare the functions of a world (91). One of the most interested insights that Watkin introduces is the “staging” of category theory from “the pornography of age, or the P of A” (76). In this diagram, “pornography” takes the higher position, that of influence over “age,” while also consolidating a composited and relational picture of association. The positioning of this category—and, by extension, the structuration of images over democratic politics—suggests that force is determined by relation, which is precisely how it hides its operative power. According to Watkin, the program of Badiou’s essay is to delineate that which separates us from our age, our present, our real. Badiou, vis-à-vis category theory, identifies the greater logic of appearance in worlds, or the “order of representation”, with an indication of the failure of images to capture that which they purport to index, our present. Thus, The Age of Pornography, delineated via the “pornography à democracy” morphism, is not so much the title of Badiou’s book as it is a diagram. This morphism gives structural precedence to the asymmetry of today’s politics, illuminating how pornography as a conceptual category supervenes upon contemporary democracy. The subsequent question then becomes one concerning the intensity of relational identity. For Badiou, pornography and our democratic age relate to one another with maximum intensity and we must consider qualities as functions in comparing democracy’s dependence on images of desire qua pornography-as-category. Even if the two have nothing in common in terms of what they are, ”ontologically speaking,” the meta-mathematical functional relation birthed by category theory designates associative identities in terms of an ontology of doing: “[i]f, for example, what democracy does with the image is functionally the same as what pornography does with the image, then democracy and pornography are the same, in terms of categories” (90).
Nonetheless, while pornography envelops democracy, there is the third “transcendental name” of the category as a whole that defines the essence of the category—the brothel, which allows for one to survey both democracy and the pornographic through a hierarchical precipice. Thus, the brothel is an empty signifier, a structure of sanction and legitimization, from which democracy—as “a masking and clothing of power” (108)—is able to articulate itself. This may remind readers of Baudrillard, who saw pornography, simulation and the “realness of cybersex” as indexing the interminable victory of digitally-mediated communication and the hyperreal over the enterprise of culture. However, pornography, for Badiou, provides us with a political program of what to work against: pornography is not a technologically-extended virtual domain, as for Baudrillard and Agamben, but is a condition of the imagistic regime that inheres, mapping what logics we, as political subjects, must actively dismantle. Thus, Genet’s play “confronts the reign of images with the real of revolt” (44). Such evental confrontations with pornographic democracy transpire via determinate negations, including the populist politics of protest, labor strikes and calls to action.
Ekin Erkan is a Turkish philosopher and researcher in media, post-Marxism, computation, technology and science based in New York City. Erkan’s most recent work, collapsing distinctions between continental and analytic traditions, has been conducted under the supervision of Reza Negarestani. Erkan is an editor at Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation and their work has been published in journals including The Journal of Value Inquiry, The Review of Metaphysics, Radical Philosophy, Theory & Event, Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Cosmos & History, Alphaville, Cultural Studies, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Chiasma, Rhizomes, Labyrinth, Cultural Logic: A Journal of Marxist Theory & Practice, Media Theory, Philosophy East and West, and The Cincinnati Romance Review.
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